Summer is the season for low-alcohol drinks, from session beers to spritzes.  Talia Baiocchi, co-author of Spritz, tells Melissa Clark about how some of these drinks, long popular in Italy, are making their way to the U.S.

Melissa Clark: So, summer is around the corner, and in summer people like to drink low-alcohol beverages. Can you give us some ideas of how we can do that?

Talia Baiocchi: The first place to start is with the session beer.  It's become a buzzword in the beer world, sessionability or a session IPA. This essentially means beers that are intentionally lower in alcohol that you can drink more of, and you see that word now applied to cocktails as well, which is really interesting.

MC: So, isn't that what we would normally think of as an aperitif, like a low-alcohol cocktail?

TB: Absolutely. Aperitif has become synonymous with low alcohol.

MC: So tell me about session beers. Because I know I've always thought that beers were lower in alcohol, generally a pretty low-alcohol option.

Pariseau and Baiocchi
Leslie Pariseau and Talia Baiocchi (Photo credit: Dylan + Jeni © 2016)

TB: Beer in the mid-2000s went to this era of higher alcohol. You had IPAs that were sort of pushing the level of bitterness and also pushing the level of alcohol. So we had beers that would crest into the double-digit mark in terms of ABV [Ed. note: Alcohol by volume], which almost gets into the wine zone.

Over the past several years, you've seen the pendulum sort of switch back in the opposite direction and this quest by a lot of brewers to brew lower alcohol beers that you can drink more than one of. Beers that don't need to be ice cold in order for you to really drink them and feel refreshed.

MC: They can sell you more beers, and you won't get as drunk.

TB: Yes, that's another part of it. Yes, they can sell you twice as many beers.

MC: What about wine? Are there wines that are lower alcohol than traditional wines?

TB: Absolutely. Wine went through a similar phase as beer, and we all remember the era of Napa cab, and those wines kind of pushing their level of ripeness in alcohol up into the 15 percent, 16 percent alcohol zone.

MC: Which is basically like drinking a fortified wine.

TB: Which is like drinking sherry, yeah, exactly. Fino and manzanilla sherry. Wine went through a similar sort of backing off of that trend, towards wines that are higher in acid and lower in alcohol. You see the rise of the Loire Valley as a place that people are particularly excited about right now and that is sort of a Mecca for these kinds of wines. So is the rise of riesling from Germany, particularly the Mosel, and those wines can sometimes be as low as 7, 8 percent ABV.

MC: Is that what they naturally are or are wine makers making them differently so that they will be lower in alcohol?

"I think, especially in a city like New York, happy hour means something a little different. It's like, how do you stuff as many drinks into a very small space at a lower cost?"
-Talia Baiocchi

TB: They are intentionally making these wines at that level of alcohol. These are wines that typically have residual sugar, so that fermentation does not go completely through and so you have a lower alcohol percentage.

MC: So when you're talking low-alcohol wines, you are usually talking sweeter wines.

TB: Not always. In the case of riesling, that's often true, but you have wines that can be 11, 12 percent alcohol that are completely dry.

MC: Those would be like the Loire Valley.

TB: Yeah, you see that in Muscadet sometimes. You also see that in pét-nat, which is another sort of buzzword in wine. It means "pétillant-naturel," which are these sparkling wines that finish their fermentation without any addition of sugar or yeast in the bottle, so they're oftentimes completely dry but usually around 10 percent alcohol.

MC: Let's talk about aperitifs, which are my personal summer favorite. I know that you just wrote a book on spritz cocktails, so obviously these are a kind of aperitif. Tell me about them.

TB: I think for most people when they hear the spritz, they think of the white wine spritzer in the 1980s, which was essentially sort of a half-hearted diet fad. It was a way to basically lower the calorie intake of your wine. Today, in America, you're seeing the rise of the actual spritz, which is the Italian spritz that includes the addition of a bitter liqueur, typically prosecco, a little bit of soda water, and ice. That drink typically clocks in around 11 percent alcohol all told, depending on your bitter base.

MC: If someone wanted to make one of these aperitifs, how do they do that? What are the staples?

TB: The architecture of a spritz is really simple. It's bitter, bubbly, and low alcohol, so within that framework, there are a lot of things that you can do. For me, it's always having on hand a selection of bitter liqueurs. Campari of course is the classic. Aperol is also classic, and you have things like Cappelletti, which is a wine-based bitter. And these are not just limited to Italian liqueurs. There are also French liqueurs. There are Swiss liqueurs that are bitter as well that you can use as a base for the spritz. In addition to that, you want either prosecco or wine and then soda water. The bubbliness is key to the spritz. There's a reason why people go to champagne for celebration. There is something about effervescence that just attracts you and pulls you in.

MC: In your book you talk about the rise of soda water as being sort of the key to the whole spritz universe and the creation of spritzes. In America, we also had a rise of soda water, and we made sweet sodas. But in Europe they made very bitter cocktails.

TB: The Italians have long been really obsessed with digestion and bitterness, and in America we have kind of gone in opposite directions. Sweetness has always been part of our collective palette. This is really a fairly new phenomenon.

MC: Whenever I go to Europe, I always notice that at the end of the day, people sit down, they have an aperitif, and the rest of the day will melt away. That's something that we don't really do as much here. Can you tell me maybe why culturally that's different, and, how do we get there?

Venetian Spritz
Venetian Spritz (Photo credit: Dylan + Jeni © 2016)

TB: We really need to get there. I really do think of this trend towards low alcohol, the rise of the spritz, the rise of the session beer, all of this is pointing in the direction of us finding a way to adopt some of this slowness. This moment in the day that is so important to the Italian lifestyle, that little crescent of space between work and play, that moment of unwinding. And these drinks are paramount to that moment. The spritzes become a symbol of the good life, of la dolce vita in Italy, because leisure is so important to Italian identity.

I think, especially in a city like New York, happy hour means something a little different. It's like, how do you stuff as many drinks into a very small space at a lower cost? I think we are learning with the rise of these lower alcohol cocktails meant to be sipped and savored, that this is something, we need the lifestyle along with the drink.

MC: Right. We need to ease into it and not plunge.

TB: Yeah, it's a slower approach to drinking, really.


Melissa Clark

Melissa Clark is a food writer, author, and host of our new podcast Weeknight Kitchen with Melissa Clark. She is a food columnist for The New York Times, and has written more than 30 cookbooks including Dinner in an Instant, Cook This Now, and In the Kitchen with a Good Appetite.